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Universal Music Group's everywhere-other-than-the-US operation, Universal Music International (UMI), today said it had finally digitised around 300,000 songs from 25,000 albums from its European catalogue.

That means they are all now available to "online retailers and distributors" in Europe, which of course actually means they're available to O2, currently Europe's only major music download service.

Presumably other services will come - Apple and now Napster, for a start - and they can make use of the tracks in due course. According to UMI, each album is essentially stored not as separate tracks but as a disc image from the master, along with such metadata as the Universal Product Code (UPC) and ISRC (International Standard Recording Code #1) information.

"We store all these images on a colossal digital asset store containing more than 20 terabytes of data," said a UMI spokesman. "Online retailers and distributors order albums, tracks and so forth though our front-end, and electronic packages, containing audio in the required file format, artwork and metadata, are delivered across secure networks directly to them.

"The beauty of storing the CD images in their entirety is that we can encode from these images and deliver the content in whichever contemporary format and bitrate is required by the retailer," he added. The system allows UMI to cope with future format changes that might otherwise require a "re-rip".

The project doesn't focus only on rock and pop. "Classical is very much part of this," said the spokesman. "The difference with selling classical online, though, is that it doesn't neatly correlate to the rock/pop model of 'five-minute track, 12 tracks on an album' - some 'tracks' would be 50-60 minutes long, some albums might only have two tracks. We are encouraging online retailers to think in terms of offering classical music as a 'work', with a more appropriate retail pricing structure."

UMI's offering is impressive in scale. Fellow 'big five' music company EMI can boast only 175,000-odd songs that are available in digital form to download services.

EMI's argument focuses on quality not quantity. It says that out of last year's best-selling songs sold by OD2, ten of the top 20 tracks came from EMI artists. Robbie Williams' Feel took the year's number one spot.

But that misses the point: digital distribution isn't just about serving up the hits, it's about commercialising record companies' back catalogues for songs and albums that may not be cost-effective to offer in physical form nevertheless have a small audience who will pay for downloads. The Register would never advocate the use of P2P file-sharing services as a source of such material, but it's hard to see where else folk can get digital copies of many of their old LPs from. Some will never become available, thanks to changing rights ownerships, but plenty of others lie mouldering in record labels' vaults, uncommercialised. That, surely, is half the point of an online archive - it allows the sale of material that it might otherwise be impossible to sell.

UMI admitted that the current catalogue isn't as large as its collection of physical masters. "it's not absolutely everything we have as our inactive, 'deep' catalogue includes all the deletions, outtakes and unreleased material our labels have in their vaults, including a small proportion of stuff which was released once but for which there genuinely is little or no current demand," said the spokesman. "It's a matter for the repertoire owners - the artists and labels - whether this material ever sees the light of day, but Universal is actively working with all parties to make this repertoire available online wherever possible." ®

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